John D. Batten, illustration to The sea-maiden. From Celtic fairy tales, selected by Joseph Jacobs, London, 1892.

Unlike last week’s tale, this Irish story has several similarities to fairy tales I’ve read over the last year or so.

The story opens with a fisherman who is not catching much. A sea-maiden rises out of the water and promises the fisherman many fish, if he will give her his first-born son when he turns 20. Of course, the fisherman agrees. Why do these people insists on making deals where they will lose their children?

Of course, when the time rolls around the fisherman, sad and worried, tells his son about the bargain. Instead of surrendering his son to the sea-maiden, he takes him to the smithy and has a huge, strong sword made for the son, and the son goes out into the world seeking his fortune.

His first day on his own, he comes across the carcass of a sheep beside the road.

And there were a great black dog, a falcon, and an otter, and they were quarrelling over the spoil. So they asked him to divide it for them. He came down off the horse, and he divided the carcass amongst the three. Three shares to the dog, two shares to the otter, and a share to the falcon. “For this,” said the dog, “if swiftness of foot or sharpness of tooth will give thee aid, mind me, and I will be at thy side.” Said the otter, “If the swimming of foot on the ground of a pool will loose thee, mind me, and I will be at thy side.” Said the falcon, “If hardship comes on thee, where swiftness of wing or crook of a claw will do good, mind me, and I will be at thy side.”

The young man goes along on his way, becoming the a cowherd for the king. While looking for green pastures for his cows to graze, the young man unknowingly wanders onto land held by a crone and two giants. He kills the three of them and continues to take care of the cows.

One day, the dairymaid tells the young man that the King’s daughter is going to be sacrificed to a sea monster, but the plan is for a general to rescue her and then to marry her. Of course, the young man ends up killing the monster and marrying the King’s daughter, but low and behold, come his 20th birthday, the young man and his wife are walking along beside the lake and up comes the sea-maiden, taking the young man under the water with her.

The King’s daughter is devastated. Happily a soothsayer tells her how to get her man back from the sea-maiden. Unfortunately, although she trickes the sea-maiden into giving back the young man, the sea-maiden takes the girl instead, leading the young man to despair.

A soothsayer tells the young man that there is one way to kill the sea-maiden, a complicated way involving first getting to the island in the middle of the lake, killing a deer, killing a crow that will spring from the deer, and then a catching the trout that will spring from the crow. The trout hold an egg in its mouth that holds the soul of the sea-maiden and if it is crushed she will be killed. With help from the animals he first met at the sheep’s carcass, he accomplishes catching the animals and has the egg under his foot.

‘Twas then the sea-maiden appeared, and she said, “Break not the egg, and you shall get all you ask.” “Deliver to me my wife!” In the wink of an eye she was by his side. When he got hold of her hand in both his hands, he let his foot down on the egg, and the sea-maiden died.

The story is from Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, published in 1892. You can find it a couple of places on-line, including here.

Unlike last week, today’s tale has several points in common with other fairy tales I’ve read. The bad guy taking the first born child reminds me of Rumplestiltskin and Rapunzel. Going off to kill the monsters reminds me of Momotaro, who also has three animals that help him. The sea-maiden herself reminds me of the Ice Maiden, a force of nature who is determined to have the young man promised to her. Of course, the Ice Maiden wins, while the Sea-Maiden ends up dying. It always amazes me how similar stories are, but they each feel unique too. Maybe that’s part of the draw of fairy tales.

Challenge: Fairy Tales

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.


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